New Yorkers gradually return to mass transit as city reopens

A person wearing a mask boards a New York City bus. | Getty Images
A person wearing a mask boards a New York City bus. | Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

NEW YORK — The city is gradually returning to its daily grind after weeks of lockdown.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority saw a systemwide uptick in riders during Monday’s morning rush, and New York City traffic was also on the rise, state and city transit officials said Monday — highlighting the gradual reemergence of the city’s workforce since the Covid-19 pandemic froze New York’s economy in March.


The city’s restart will largely be determined by the recovery of the public transit system, with the majority of New Yorkers reliant on subways and buses to get to work. After weeks of bickering over a mass transit plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would expand busways while MTA officials oversaw the implementation of its 13-point plan to prepare for an influx of riders.

“Obviously a big day for New York City today,” said Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the city Department of Transportation, at a Monday press conference. “I have to say the system looked clean, they have everything well marked, people were wearing masks … I feel like it’s an encouraging day to see our transportation system come back to life.”

Riders taking transit for the first time in months were greeted by workers handing out two-ounce bottles of state-produced hand sanitizer and free face masks. Yellow stickers lined the floors of major subway hubs telling riders to spread out. In some stations, like the Astoria-Ditmars subway stop, private contractors piled into trains to wipe down subway poles and seats before heading to the next stop.

Essential workers who have been using mass transit for weeks said they saw a noticeable increase in commuters and cars on the road, but felt safe commuting.

“I think people are really being careful and wearing their masks and doing what they can,” said Catherine Dowling, a 60-year-old commuter who took the Q66 bus and W train to her job at JetBlue’s office in Queens.

“Every train that comes they clean it — It’s really cool,” said Amel Mujezinovic, a 43-year-old retail manager commuting on the N to Manhattan. “C’mon, we’re in New York. We’re exposed to everything here. So we’re immune to most of it that people are not … I think we’re totally safe.

De Blasio plans to roll out five new busways between July and October, modeling them off the popular 14th Street busway that will now become a permanent fixture. The move comes after a concerted push by elected officials and advocates to increase bus lanes to accommodate more riders.

It also follows concerns about increased traffic and uncertain plans from a mayor who said he expected New Yorkers to drive more or “improvise” to get to work.

“That is very good news for bus riders. It’s very good news for the city which is reopening and fixing potential gridlock,” said Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance. “I think there were very real concerns about the mayor saying there would be an increase in driving and people would have to figure out because the people who would be hit most from that were bus riders.”

Cuomo, who marked the occasion by taking the 7 train to Grand Central, said the MTA has completed 30,000 subway station cleanings and 500,000 subway car cleanings ahead of the reopening.

“The subway cars are cleaner than they have ever been in my lifetime,” he said, adding, “If the subway isn’t safe for me, I wouldn’t ask anyone else to go into the subway.”

Now local officials and advocates are looking to plan for the weeks ahead, with even more riders expected to return to the system as the city hits subsequent phases of its reopening.

The MTA is pushing the city to add even more bus lanes, after initially calling for 60 new miles of busways.

“From the MTA’s standpoint, 20 miles of bus lanes is a step in the right direction but we asked for 60 for a reason,” said Janno Lieber, the chief development officer of the MTA, at a Monday press conference. “We really want to speed service so everybody can get more frequent service and we can accommodate the growth.”

Trottenberg, at a separate press conference, said there will be more to come.

“I think we all share the goal of making sure we get back on our mass transit systems so that everyone doesn’t try to get in their cars,” she said. “Obviously we want to try to minimize the congestion and the auto use.”

Trottenberg added there’s a “discussion” among city officials over whether to add more HOV lanes.

“Obviously one question with HOV is if you’re trying to encourage people to social distance, what’s the right number of people to encourage to be in their car together,” she said.

Some are continuing to push Cuomo to restart 24-hour subway service to provide better service for essential workers who leave early in the morning for their shifts.

“The MTA must reopen the train services from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the committee on transportation, at a press conference. “I feel that as a city … working toward reopening we have to take care of those essential workers.”

“The most transit-dependent New Yorkers are the people hurt most by the end to 24 hour service,” Pearlstein said.

That opens up the next big fight for Cuomo, who said the nightly cleanings could last another year until there’s a treatment for the coronavirus or a vaccine.

“You can’t disinfect the cars and clean them the way they’re cleaning them and have around-the-clock service,” Cuomo said on NY1. “If it’s a couple of hours at night, and the MTA has alternative transportation during those four hours, I’d rather use alternative transportation than have essential workers using subways we know are not disinfected.”

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